“We should have brought snowshoes,” I gasped as I climbed over another deadfall and plunged into the snow on the other side.
“Yeah, I know,” said Mark, sheepishly.
SJ had just let us out of the General, a sheriff’s office UTV, that we had thought would shuttle us, warmly and comfortably, all the way up to the top of Miner’s Creek Road. We believed we would be about 300 yards from our subject at that point, according to her GPS coordinates.
A cardinal rule of search and rescue is to plan for the unexpected, and we hadn’t done that. There was a tree across the road and that was the end of our warm, comfortable ride.
I was too embarrassed to tell Mark the rest of my story at the time. I wasn’t just lacking snowshoes. I was wearing lightweight trail shoes that weren’t even waterproof. We’d been post holing through mid-calf deep snow for five minutes and my feet were wet already. It was 10 degrees.
Our three teammates, younger, fitter and better outfitted than us, had gone in on the opposite side of the Peaks Trail from Breckenridge on skis earlier in the evening. Our target was a young woman hiking with her dog. She had called 911 at 7:00 pm to say she was lost and her dog was so cold it wouldn’t move anymore. At 7:30, mission coordinator Glen called us out. At 8:00, we arrived in Breckenridge to deploy out of Red Tail Ranch, and at 8:30, our subject called again to say she was dizzy and thought she would pass out. Glen told her to stay put.
Zach, Emily and Chris headed into the field shortly after, shuttled by SJ’s UTV through a private trail the ranch had graciously given us access to.
“You two stay here,” Glen said to Mark and me. “You’re my insurance in case everything turns to shit.”
Mark and I, in our 50s, were used to not being first in the field anymore. We got into our cars and turned on the engines, heat blasting. In pre-Covid days we would probably have gotten into one car so we could chat.
After 20 minutes, Mark rolled down his window and motioned to me. “Boring!” I shouted.
Mark backed up his truck and pulled it closer to my Subaru so we could talk through our windows. “Have you heard anything,” he asked? I had a radio, and he didn’t.
“They’re out of the UTV and on the trail,” I said. “And there was a second mission to rescue some folks on stuck snowmobiles off Tiger Road. Charles is running it.” I held up one finger as my radio sounded again.
“And our third mission just got stood down,” I said after another minute.
“Our third mission?”
“Yeah,” I laughed. “Dispatch just said they found him at Gold Pan Saloon.”
We rolled our windows back up for a while. It was cold, and although we both thought Team One would end up finding our subject without any help from us, we didn’t want to take the chance of getting chilled and then deployed.
That was a good call. Ten minutes later SJ radioed to say he and Glen thought the rescue subject was far closer to the end of Miner’s Creek Road in Frisco than she was to Red Tail Ranch where we were currently staged.
Mark, SJ and I peeled out of the Ranch in separate vehicles, headed for Frisco. I couldn’t help but have a feeling of satisfaction on the way. No one wants to be left jobless and sitting in a heated car during a winter mission, regardless of how comfortable it is.
Twenty minutes later, I pulled my Subaru into the Miner’s Creek trailhead and Mark and SJ pulled up next to me. SJ unloaded the General from its trailer and we geared up and climbed in. Minus snowshoes.
Riding with SJ is always a thrill. He went fast up the road, popping off berms and plowing through frozen streams. At one point we got stuck on a steep pitch and had to back down and power back up. I took some videos on my phone, figuring they would make for interesting social media posts later. Over the radio we could hear Team One, forging on, getting closer to our subject. Emily was such a badass, I thought. She was just barely recovering from knee surgery and was on Nordic skis in what was beginning to sound like AT ski terrain.
Then came the tree across the road. We let out a collective sigh of exasperation.
“I have a small hand saw,” Mark offered.
“Yeah, I have one too,” SJ said. “Why don’t you two start hiking, and I’ll start sawing. You’re probably a third to a half mile from the end of the road. If I can clear this tree, I’ll catch up.”
And that’s how I found myself post holing in trail shoes, feeling, once again, like an idiot. I was a ten-year veteran of mountain rescue and had no excuse for how many times I had taken short-cuts like this. Perhaps the problem is that I had never paid the price, whether on a rescue mission or on a personal adventure. Over the last twenty years I’d been nearly struck by lightning on Mount Sneffels while hiking alone with a broken arm in a cast; been lost alone on long-range treks in Australia and New Zealand, realizing that I’d told no one where I was going; been stranded on the Annapurna circuit with burned trail shoes trying to navigate two feet of snow across Thorung La Pass; and spent three months stranded in Thailand after a dirt bike accident left me with no passport and legal troubles. Just to name a few.
I was 55 now. I spent many hours as a public information officer educating the public about backcountry safety, both on a county and state level. Someday, I thought, there would be a media article about the hypocrisy of a backcountry safety spokesperson being evacuated, hypothermic or worse, from some ridiculous situation.
Mark and I took turns breaking trail. We could hear our subject calling desperately for help. Her name was Charlotte, and her voice wafted from the left as we passed by. We knew there was nothing we could do because the Miner’s Creek Road went beyond her location and eventually doubled back to her. A stream separated her from us, and it was too cold to cross. Mark called several times to reassure her. “Charlotte! Hang in there, we’re coming!”
After an hour we came to the turn-off for the Continental Divide Trail. I had thought this would bring relief, but it brought deeper snow and more hills. At one point the trail side-hilled along a steep embankment, and I thought about how difficult this would be if we had to take our subject out via a litter. Not that we had one. We were still assuming we could evacuate her on foot, under her own power. What if we were wrong? No other teams or gear had been deployed, and it was getting close to midnight. It was cold.
“Command, Team One,” we heard on the radio. “We have contact with the subject. We’ll assess and get back to you.”
Mark and I moved faster. We knew we were close. As we approached the cluster of rescuers and rescue subjects, the first thing I saw was the dog. She was short, squat, about 40 pounds, brown and white with a long, ridged nose. Zach and Chris were clustered around our patient, Charlotte, trying to warm her up with extra clothes, food and hot tea. Rose, the dog, crouched and trembled. She wore a knit white sweater with an embroidered rose on the side. She was exhausted and lifted one frozen paw after another from the snow. Emily stood over her, trying to comfort her. I dropped my pack and crawled past Charlotte, whom Zach and Chris seemed to have under control. I dropped to my knees in front of Rose and clutched each of her paws in my gloves. She had a vacant look in her eyes.
Chris, Zach and Emily got Charlotte ready to go and we began to move. Emily struggled to carry her own pack, Charlotte’s pack and the dog.
“Let me take the dog,” I told her. My pack was light and since I wasn’t on skis I could more easily kneel and try to warm her paws. Emily agreed reluctantly and gave me Rose’s leash.
But Rose wouldn’t move. I dropped back to my knees repeatedly, holding her paws in my hands and pleading with her. “It will be OK, sweetie, come on,” I said. Rose looked at me helplessly. She couldn’t move.
I resorted to force. I stood up and pulled on the leash. Rose moved a few feet and then sat back down again, lifting her paws. I picked her up and tried to walk. It was hopeless. I had been sinking into the snow at least a foot and losing my balance with every step even before I tried to carry Rose.
Emily could see I was struggling and she stopped and waited.
“I think I can carry her,” she said.
“If you can, I’m impressed.” I said. “I tried, I can’t do it.”
“Can you take my pack?” Emily asked. I nodded. “I’ll manage.”
I pulled Rose up between my feet and handed her to Emily, who somehow managed to hoist her onto her shoulders. Rose shook in terror and curled herself around Emily’s tiny neck. I grabbed Emily’s pack, which turned out to be impossibly heavy, and wrapped the dog leash around it. There was no way I could put it on my back on top of my own pack. I began to drag it behind me instead.
With Charlotte’s pack attached to Emily’s it was heavy and unstable. We came back to the trail section skirting a steep embankment and the pack began to slide down the drop-off, threatening to take me with it. I took one painful, slow step at a time. The rest of my team disappeared in front of me. I resolved to keep going. At least I had no responsibility for any living creatures at this point. Emily had told me to leave her pack behind if I had to, and Zach would come back for it.
Then I saw Mark ahead of me.
“Anna, are you OK?” he shouted. I nodded, still dragging the pair of packs behind me and barely keeping them from sliding off the trail. Mark came back down the trail toward me.
“I can take that,” he said. He handed me his pack and hoisted Emily’s on his back with a grunt.
“Oh my god!” he shouted. “What does she have in here?”
I shook my head and hitched Mark’s pack to the dog leash. It was mercifully light compared to Emily’s.
We caught up to Chris, who had relieved Emily of Rose. “I can’t carry her anymore,” he said as he tried to rig some sort of sled out of a tarp that he could tow behind him. “I just got off a 48-hour ambulance shift, I’m beat.”
On Chris’s first attempt to tow her, Rose fell off the tarp within minutes. Mark pulled a bungy cord out of his pack and made a taco out of the dog and the tarp, and Chris tried to move again. Rose hung on this time, precariously.
We made it to the top of Miner’s Creek Road, where SJ had managed to cut the downed tree and get to the top of the road. He had loaded Charlotte, Rose and Emily by the time I got there. There was room for one more, and Mark and I had an argument about who it should be. Mark knew I had wet, cold feet and wanted me to go next. Selfishly, however, I knew whoever went first would have to shuttle people to Red Tail Ranch to get drivers back to their cars. Mark lived in Breck and I thought I would rather walk for a while and then just go straight home to where I lived in Silverthorne.
After some argument, we agreed. Mark got into the General and they took off. Zach, Chris and I headed down the road, me on foot and Zach and Chris on skis.
With every step I plunged through ski tracks and into deeper snow, losing balance and wobbling like a drunkard. After a while I realized that running out of control gave me more control, and also gave Zach and Chris better ability to let go on their skis. I was still holding them back, but not as much as I might have.
We speculated on the way down. “Did she seem altered to you?” I asked.
“Yeah,” said Chris, an EMT. “I think she was pretty hypothermic.” Zach, also an EMT, nodded in agreement.
Just then we heard the high-pitched whine of the General. “Thank god,” I said. “I’m pretty done.”
SJ raced by us to the top of a steep pitch, backed down to a flatter spot, and turned around. We ran gratefully down to him to load packs and skis on the back.
Once inside we got an update. “The ambulance crew let her go within five minutes,” SJ said.
“Nope. Apparently, she wasn’t really all that hypothermic,” SJ responded. I shook my head. Chris looked dumbfounded.
Back at the trailhead, Mark told us our teammate Tim had taken Charlotte and Rose back to Breckenridge along with Emily. They would all be dropped at their cars. Relieved, I headed home.
The next morning, I couldn’t wait to hear the outcome. I called Glen first.
“You won’t believe this,” he said. “Tim and SJ shuttled her around the county for hours and never found her car. It wasn’t at Peak 8 in Breck, it wasn’t at Gold Hill, it wasn’t at Ten Mile or Miner’s Creek trailheads or at Zach’s Stop. It wasn’t anywhere logical. Finally, at 3:00 am, I told Tim to drop her at a hotel and go home. SJ sent me photos of the dog being carried into the Ramada Inn, do you want them?”
Of course I wanted them. The next day a social media post went live with a very popular message: Everyone makes mistakes, including us. We don’t judge. But our beloved dogs follow in our footsteps, loving us unconditionally, trusting us to make good choices for them. When we don’t, they suffer.
Mid-morning, Glen called me again. “She’s disappeared,” he said. “We may never know what happened. But her car was just finally found in Officer’s Gulch. Miles from where she was found, and even further from where she believed she started.”
Sometimes…the story will never make sense. And that’s OK. Sometimes, my story doesn’t make sense either.